The carriages of the single Warsaw metro line are as crowded with passengers in the morning as any underground line in the world. But compared to Prague or Vienna – not to mention Paris or London – there is one oddity: all the passengers are Poles. Foreigners or visitors aren’t yet exactly pouring into Warsaw. And at first glance, that doesn’t seem surprising.

The dominant feature of the Polish capital remains the Palace of Culture skyscraper, built in the style of the Stalinist era, and the wide boulevards bulldozed in the fifties through the ruins of the war-torn city don’t encourage walking. And to hide from them in cafés, where there ought to be an Internet connection, is almost impossible.

And yet this city has something exciting about it. Warsaw, as indeed all of Poland, is pulsing with energy and changing from one day to the next. Cranes bristle across the skyline. Just a short walk from the centre, along the river Vistula, the mighty ring of the new stadium is going up. Poland is getting ready for the European football championship in 2012. Before that, however, there awaits a different task: since July 1, Poland is now chairing the European Union.

The presidency comes at a time when Poland has been dramatically changing its view of the world, and also at time when it has become the sixth largest economy in the EU and is already a bigger trading partner for Germany than Russia. There is no doubt that Poland’s influence on European affairs will only grow.

A country divided

In a quiet passage to Nowy Swiat street, a youthful-looking Marcin Zaborowski sits in an office with an impressive library. "The keyword of this country today is modernisation," he explains. "New highways, new infrastructure, and a new foreign policy." Zaborowski is the Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) and believes deeply in this change. Until recently he lived in Britain, one of two million mainly young Poles who had fled Poland for other EU countries. A year ago he won the competition for this job, returned home with his British wife and decided to stay.

Foreign policy in Poland is, point-blank, a matter of life and death. When four years ago, following the electoral defeat of the national Conservatives, Poland switched from being a eurosceptic troublemaker to an ardent supporter of European integration, and even began to talk normally with its age-old enemy, Russia.

Some Poles perceived the switch as a betrayal of national interests. The camps are entrenched in their positions: on the one side is the liberal government of Donald Tusk, who advocates a new international orientation, and facing it is the conservative right, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The tensions and mutual aversion dividing politicians, voters and the media could be cut with a knife.

Long live shale

The surprisingly rapid transformation of Poland into a pro-European country is due not just to the new generation of elites, but to other factors as well. One disappointment has been the evolution in recent years of American interests, which have shifted to other parts of the world. Secondly, there is an increasing economic confidence in the country, the only one in Europe to have weathered the global crisis without a recession: today growth stands at four percent, and – most significantly – vast reserves of shale gas have been discovered.

The third phenomenon is the change in public opinion. While in 2004 the European Union was viewed positively by barely 50 percent of Poles, that figure today is nearly 80 percent. Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski can therefore rely on the fact that the vast majority of the population are in tune with his policies. So what made the Poles all of a sudden the biggest euro-optimists in the EU?

The biggest opponent of entry was the traditional core of Polish society – farmers. “They feared that they would be unable to stand up to the European markets and that the Germans would snap up their land," says one of the six advisors of President Bronislaw Komorowski. But then they found out that no one wanted their land, and that, thanks to subsidies from Brussels they could, quite to the contrary, successfully conquer the markets in Germany.

A trip to meet the farmers

The journey from Warsaw out to the Polish farms is a painful one. The four-lane road to Katowice, which was started in the seventies by communist leader Edward Gierek, is still only half way there. The Polish government has pledged to build a thousand kilometres of highways by 2012, but it is hard to imagine that this highway will be finished on time.

Still, it is better than the highway to Poznan, which the Chinese were to have built with the help of Polish companies. But due to disputes over financing, the government eventually withdrew from the contract with China and the site has now been standing idle for weeks. In the longer run, even the completion of the football stadium in Warsaw is not entirely certain. The building boom in Poland is obviously not perfect.

After swinging west towards the town of Opole, the landscape turns into typical farming country. A few years ago the Polish villages and towns were studded with billboards offering plastic windows and metal roofs. Today, in their place, the billboards are advertising meble – furniture. It seems that the Poles, following the mass replacement of their windows, are going in for big changes to their interior decor.

A short distance down the road, Paweł Pietruska (54) comes up slowly on a tractor, the baler behind him spitting out big rolls of hay. He has 20 cows and runs a family farm of 70 hectares. "European Union? You know that we have to be in it. Where else would we sell our grain and milk?" Mr. Pietruska has everything added up, and he could talk for hours about farming and politics. From Brussels he gets about 200 euros per hectare per year, and if he is angry at anyone it is certainly not the EU, but the Polish government.

Even a farmer of the younger generation, Sebastián (35), who makes a comfortable living from 13 hectares, is satisfied. "I have ten cows, five pigs, two ponies, a wife and two daughters. This, thanks to subsidies from Brussels, is enough for me." But the man hoeing a potato field just a few kilometres away gives off a palpable sadness. "The soil is all sand. Who would buy it? We’ve been working it for forty years and it’s just getting worse,” says Tomek (58).

He lives without a wife and without a tractor. He has only a horse for a friend, and it hasn’t rained for a month. As for Brussels, that just means paperwork, and he hasn’t got the nerves for it. “It was better under communism," he adds. Mr. Tomek won’t be voting, though. Politics don’t interest him.

Surveys suggest that Donald Tusk has quite a good chance of holding onto his job after the parliamentary elections in October this year and so becoming the first prime minister since 1989 to continue his mandate. Given the Polish liking for Brussels, if he can handle the EU presidency it may even help him in the election campaign. Edward Lucas thinks so as well: "Poland is on track to be the best of the post-communist states to take over the Presidency."

Translated from the Czech by Anton Baer